Inside the administrative wing to the Ramallah preventive security headquarters, two Israeli soldiers argued over who should enter the building first – a Palestinian or a trained dog, recalls Waseem Gheith.
“After a while the two soldiers reached a solution. One said, ‘Fine, we will send in the dogs first.'” They smirked at Gheith – he was the Palestinian they were speaking of. In less than one month, the 24-year-old sanitation employee was used as a human shield three times by the Israeli army.
Gheith’s first experience protecting Israeli troops was on March 31, when Israeli troops raided a Beitunya building southeast of Ramallah. The soldiers told all the building’s inhabitants to leave their apartments and put them in one flat no larger than 120 square meters. The space served as shelter for the apartment building’s 60 residents for two weeks as the Israeli army raided Ramallah and other West Bank towns.
But Gheith was not put with the others. He and another five young men were taken to the building’s entrances and forced to stand shoulder to shoulder in a sort of “human wall” to protect the soldiers behind them from being shot at by members of the Palestinian preventive security, who were positioned in their headquarters in a beeline opposite the building.
“They told me and the five other men to stand in front of the entrance,” says Gheith, “which was packed with soldiers constantly entering and exiting the building. There were also Israeli snipers at the entrance to the building, so we were like a preventive shield for them.”
Gheith says that at one point an Israeli sniper even used his shoulder as a tripod to peer into the windows across the way. “At that point I was really scared for my life,” admits Gheith. “I wasn’t sure that the preventive security members would not shoot at the soldiers.”
He became even more frightened when another soldier pointed to the man who had rested his gun on Gheith’s soldier and told him to look at an opening window in the headquarters. “At that point I thought that my time had come,” remembers Gheith. “Then the sniper said that the window had closed and I decided nothing would happen to me that day.”
The Israeli army has denied that its soldiers systematically used Palestinians as human shields in its invasion of the West Bank. “We do not accept these claims and accusations made by the Palestinians,” said the Israeli spokesperson. The army announced after an investigation that it has only found one case in which a Palestinian was used to protect Israeli soldiers. Its official spokesman says Israeli troops were in the Palestinian territories “to fight terrorism” and that their operations were highly disciplined.
Repeatedly, however, Palestinians have told how they were forced to knock on doors, open suspicious packages and search homes where Israeli troops feared that armed Palestinians were hiding. Even some individual soldiers have admitted the practice. In the Hebrew press, Israeli army Sergeant Nati Aharoni was quoted as saying that, “Traditionally, we would catch a Palestinian in order to search the area and to open doors and stairwells.”
Hani Majli, executive director of the Middle East and Northern Africa chapter of Human Rights Watch, called the reports “extremely disturbing.” Forcing civilians at gunpoint to carry out the duties of soldiers goes against the legal principles that every army must adhere to, he said.
Human Rights Watch relates that it made many requests to meet with Israeli army officials to discuss the results of its research and evidence that soldiers used Palestinians as human shields. But in every case, the military refused.
“There is no justification for such violations against the Palestinians,” said Majli in a report in Arabic. “The Israeli government must fulfill its commitments to Palestinian civilians and stop such actions immediately.” Human Rights Watch has also called on the army to warn soldiers that anyone who uses Palestinians as human shields will be punished.
The charges are not only a violation of international humanitarian law, say lawyers, but violations of Israel’s own legal statues. “Article 2 and Article 5 of Israeli law indicates that what the Israeli occupation army is doing is a ‘violation of human rights to a free life without being subjected to danger’,” says attorney Hanan Khatib from LAW. Khatib is taking the Israeli army to court for the charges that Gheith and others were used as human shields. The victory it wants is simply for the Israeli military to admit what it has done, and to prohibit the use of human shields in the future.
Back in Beitunya, Gheith’s frightening work was only just beginning. Once the soldiers had taken up their positions, he and the six men were moved to the apartment in their building’s basement with the other residents. Gheith says they were kept there, at the army base of command, as a deterrent. “The soldiers guaranteed their safety at the expense of 60 people in one tiny room, most of whom were women and children.”
Then, on April 3, two soldiers came to the apartment early in the morning and made Gheith and four other men go with them outside. “When we got outside we found an enormous military contingent before us,” he says. “That is when I realized that the soldiers were going to invade the preventive security headquarters after shelling it the night before.”
This time the soldiers were arguing over which unit would get to take Gheith. “I was the only one who spoke Hebrew,” he recalls. Each of the five Palestinian men was taken with one unit to a different destination. “When I approached the unit that I was to accompany, the captain came towards me and said, ‘Don’t even think of doing anything stupid today because those snipers you see will not think twice about killing you.'”
Gheith was taken to the Preventive Security headquarters, where the group entered through a hole in the wall. “This is where my role began,” says Gheith. “After the dogs had made their rounds, I was ordered under the gun to go to the offices, open them and enter them. There they looked for suspicious objects and for anyone who had stayed inside the headquarters.”
Gheith was told, he says, to open a number of suitcases and suspicious objects, as the Israeli soldiers stood at a distance.
At one point, Gheith remembers that the dogs began to bark outside one particular cell in the prison wing of the compound. “The soldiers then stepped back and pointed their guns at the cell door, then ordered me to break in the door.” The soldiers had given him a tool for breaking locks and taught him how to use it.
Gheith, nervous, yelled out, “If there is anyone inside, you had better surrender because there are a lot of soldiers out here and they will kill you and kill me if you try something.” A soldier barked at him to do his job. Laser gun sights flashed across Gheith and the door as he pried it open.
“What a sweet and dismal surprise it was to find a tiny cat inside the cell,” says Gheith. “At that point I felt that the cat had saved my life. If it had been a resistance fighter, I would have been dead right now.”